A humble tool shows off its versatility

Forget SnackMasters, smoothie blenders, and sandwichmakers. My favorite kitchen gadget is a potato peeler. Not because I peel many potatoes, you understand. What I do peel these days - several times a day - are mangoes.

We have two old mango trees in our garden here in Zimbabwe. This time of year their branches are loaded with fist-size fruit, dangling from long stalks like giant gooseberries.

Late in the afternoon, the three of us do "the mango walk." By then the day's heat is dipping. The shade under the trees is thick and cool.

My husband gets to choose the mangoes. Armed with a stick, he climbs the stepladder and knocks down the ones he fancies. On the grass, my son and I stack the fruit in a basket. There's a wet dribble at the top of each mango, where the stalk attached it to the tree. If you lick your finger and taste the moisture, it's bitter. It's nothing like the sugary juice that runs through your hands when you're cutting up mangoes for dessert.

These days we eat mangoes by the bowlful, plain and thinly sliced. No baking, boiling, or stewing for me: It's too hot in the kitchen.

I'm getting good at recognizing perfect-for-peeling mangoes. They're half yellow and half green, with a dappling of spots near the bud end. Don't be put off by the green. On any other fruit it spells unripe, but on mangoes it means firm and sweet.

What you don't want are big black bruises. That makes the mango hard to peel; the potato peeler gets jammed. On a good mango, you can slide your potato peeler smoothly through the flesh, liftingthe peelclean away. There shouldn't be any mango threads left in the peeler's "window." It's much like peeling a potato, but mango peels aren't long artistic curls. Mango peel comes off in chubby chunks, about finger-length.

Once I have the fruit peeled, I start to chop. There may be a more professional way to do this, but I take a bread knife, lever it into the flesh until I can feel the stone, and slice away: one sliver, two, three, four.

"More man-no, more man-no," my toddler chants.

Members of Zimbabwe's largest ethnic group, Shona, tell me that not so long ago, it was perfectly good manners to arrive at someone's home and sample the fruit from their trees. You didn't have to ask permission. You could walk up to their banana or avocado tree or a guava bush, pick off a ripe fruit, and wander into your host's houseeating it.

The one thing you weren't supposed to do was take fruit away with you when you left.

"Those ways are gone now," says my friend Anita with a sigh. "People want to sell what they grow."

But locals say there's still a remote mountain range in eastern Zimbabwe, called Mahwemasimike, where you're free to pick bananas from the plantations. But there's no lugging them away with you to sell at the market.

We hand out bags of fruit to everyone who visits. Just now my mangoes are my riches - and there are more than enough to share. But not enough to share with the monkeys, we've decided.

There are two types of monkey in this southern African country: the rare brownish-red Samango monkey, found only in a tiny patch of the Vumba Mountains, and the more common gray vervet monkey, seen by farmers (and just about every other Zimbabwean) as a pest. On most mornings there's a troop of vervets chattering away in the fig tree next door. I know they're eyeing our mangoes.

From my kitchen sink, I watch the loquat tree. I've learned the monkeys' route by heart: They first swing into my loquat (so they can check if anyone's in the garden). Then they vault over the wall, slink along the grass, and sidle up behind the trunk of the palm tree, about six feet from their target.

Just when those monkeys think they're about to bag a nice fat crop of mangoes, I burst through the door, waving my potato peeler like a shiny silver flag. That sends them springing away.

They're wonderful things, potato peelers.

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